RELEASE DATE: Friday 21st June 1996
You have to hand it to the Disney artists of the '90s. They weren't afraid to try new things. Instead of adapting a family-friendly fairy-tale again for their second feature, directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale chose a work of famous literature: Victor Hugo's novel "Notre Dame de Paris."
Completed when Hugo was only 29, Notre Dame de Paris told the story of a deaf hunchback who lived in the bell tower of the Notre Dame cathedral, oppressed and hidden away by his master, Archdeacon Frollo. It is a dark and fairly depressing novel, dealing with religious, racial and class issues in medieval Paris. So why on Earth did they think this might make a good animated Disney movie...?
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the first film to be made in Disney's new Feature Animation Building. At last, the animators were moved out of their drafty old warehouses and given a proper building to make movies in.
Some of the animation for the film was also completed in a Disney animation studio in Paris - what better way to give an authentic Parisian view of the city?
Not many people would realise it, but in 1999 - only three years after the release of the film - The Hunchback of Notre Dame was adapted for the stage, following in the footsteps of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. The catch? It only ever played in Berlin, Germany. With new songs written by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken and an entirely new script written by director James Lapine, Der Glockner von Notre Dame was hugely successful in the 3 years in ran in Berlin. So why did it never open anywhere else...?
It has taken 12 years, but as I type this, the first official English production of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame has just started playing at the La Jolla Playhouse, just outside of San Diego. As I understand it, huge changes have been made to the script. Frollo is now apparently the archdeacon of the cathedral again. The three gargoyles are apparently no more. I shall find out for myself soon enough, since I am scheduled to see the show in a couple of weeks! That's right! Crazy Irvy is heading over to the U.S.A. for a single week to see this show!
(It's a long story. I have quite a connection with the show... See my other blog, A Fan's Hunch, to learn more about it. I will be keeping it updated with stories about the new production.)
Towering high above the streets of Paris in the late 1400s was the beautiful cathedral "Notre Dame de Paris." ("Our Lady of Paris") I remember being confused when I first heard people talking about this film on the television. I couldn't understand why they were pronouncing the word "Notre" like "note" instead of like "knot." Turns out it's an American thing...
On the streets of the city, a gypsy puppetmaster named Clopin tells some children of the legend of Quasimodo. Every day the bells of Notre Dame ring, but no one ever seems to know WHO rings the bells. Many legends surround the mysterious bellringer, but Clopin claims to know the true story.
Twenty years ago, a family of gypsies was being smuggled into Paris. They had almost reached safety, when the minister of justice, Claude Frollo, discovered and imprisoned them... all except for one woman, who ran for her life with a baby clutched tightly to her chest.
Finding the cathedral, the woman pounded on the doors, begging for sanctuary. Frollo caught up with her and killed her on Notre Dame's steps. When he realised the baby was physically deformed, he immediately planned to drown it. The archdeacon, horrified at Frollo's crime, suggested this this act of murder may condemn him if he could not pay penance. Frollo reluctantly agreed to raise the child as his own, as long as he stayed locked away from the public eye in the bell tower of the cathedral. And that, Clopin tells the children, is how Quasimodo became the hunchback of Notre Dame.
Quasimodo, now an adult, lives a solitary life where his only friends are the gargoyles that he talks to. Living such a lonely life has convinced Quasimodo that the gargoyles also talk back to him. He has named his three favourites "Victor," "Hugo" and "Laverne."
While Quasimodo would love to attend the annual Festival of Fools down on the street, his master Frollo would never allow it.
Even so, Quasimodo longs to live among the people that he watches every day from his high position.
By the way, during the "Out There" sequence when Quasimodo sings, "Out there among the millers and the weavers and their wives" keep your eyes peeled for a girl wandering down the streets of Paris with a dreamy far-off look and her nose stuck in a book. You might also see a man holding a familiar-looking Arabian carpet...
In another part of the city, Captain Phoebus has returned from the wars after being summoned by Minister Frollo. He has a chance encounter with a beautiful gypsy girl called Esmeralda who, with her loyal goat Djali, dances on the street for coins. Captain Phoebus soon learns that the gypsies are not treated with any kind of respect from the authorities.
The captain is taken to the Palace of Justice, where he finally meets his new boss. Frollo tells Phoebus that his new job will be to enforce the law and bring the gypsies to order.
Quasimodo, finally convinced that he can sneakily attend the Festival of Fools, witnesses the crowds and chaos led by Clopin.
Esmeralda does a sultry dance for the crowd, attracting the eye of both Phoebus and Frollo. When it comes to the annual "King of Fools" crowning ceremony, it is Quasimodo who is chosen to be king, due to him owning the ugliest face in Paris. The crowds cheer his name.
His fame is short-lived, however. The crowds turn, and before long he is being roped down on to a pillary and publicly humiliated while the crowds laugh and cheer at his pain. Only one person - the gypsy Esmeralda - is willing to free him. Frollo and Esmeralda have a yelling match across the courtyard. He orders the soldiers to arrest her, but she manages to cleverly avoid capture.
While the soldiers are searching for the mysterious gypsy girl, she has managed to sneak into Notre Dame. Phoebus follows her in and the two introduce themselves. He tells her that if she claims sanctuary within the walls, Frollo cannot arrest her. Frollo however, threatens her menacingly. "Set one foot outside and you're mine," he says.
Now a prisoner within the cathedral, Esmeralda prays for all of the unfortunate outcasts of the world.
She follows Quasimodo up to the bell tower and the two become properly acquainted. Quasimodo shows her the bells and treats her to the best view in Paris.
The hunchback makes a dangerous decision, to help Esmeralda escape in secret. No sooner has he deposited the girl and her goat on the cobbled streets, then he is approached by Phoebus. Quasimodo immediately goes into attack mode, but Phoebus manages to convince him that they might just be on the same side.
Over at the Palace of Justice, Frollo is in a state of confusion and self-loathing. He despises Esmeralda and everything she is, and yet he finds himself drawn to her, unable to contain his lust. He fears the judgement that awaits him if he follows through on his feelings. He sees the only way to save his immortal soul is to find this "demon" and destroy her.
Frollo's every action is to find Esmeralda. He is ruthless in his interrogations. Phoebus can stand his cruel nature no longer. When Frollo instructs the captain to burn an innocent family alive in their house, not only does he refuse, but he rescues the family as well.
This, of course, does not bode well for the captain's job prospects. Just as he is about to be beheaded for disobeying Frollo's orders, he siezes and opportunity and escapes on Frollo's horse, only to be shot with an arrow and tossed into a river. Luckily, Esmeralda was watching the whole situation and manages to rescue him.
Frollo's wrath knows no equal. In his hunt for Esmeralda, he sets Paris ablaze.
Meanwhile, up in the bell tower Quasimodo can only watch and worry. His gargoyle friends try to cheer him up by suggesting that Esmeralda might have a crush on him. Quasimodo actually begins to believe it...
... until Esmeralda appears with a wounded Phoebus. She asks Quasimodo to hide the captain. Quasi can only watch on in horror as Esmeralda and Phoebus share their first kiss.
As Frollo arrives, Esmeralda makes a quick escape, and Quasimodo has to hide the unconscious Phoebus while Frollo yells at him for letting Esmeralda escape the cathedral.
Believing Frollo's claim of discovering the gypsies' hideout, Phoebus decides to find the Court of Miracles and warn the gypsies that they are soon to be under attack. Quasimodo reluctantly joins him. They find the secret entrance in a graveyard and step carefully through the underground catacombs.
When they reach the Court of Miracles they discover that they are very unwelcome visitors. Clopin is about to have them hanged for trespassing when Esmeralda rushes in to save their lives.
Suddenly Frollo appears with an army of soldiers. Quasimodo has unwittingly led them straight to the gypsies' lair. Esmeralda and Phoebus are taken hostage and Quasimodo is dragged back to the bell tower.
The following scene is one of my favourite Disney animated sequences of all time. Esmeralda is tied to a stake in the city square and set to be burned. Frollo offers her salvation if she recants and hands herself over to him, but she spits in his face. Quasimodo, unable to bear watching her be killed, swings down from the bell tower, grabs Esmeralda from her pyre, flies up to the cathedral balcony and screams, "Sanctuary!" With the incredible animation and Alan Menken's spine-chilling score, it is the scene that the whole movie has been leading up to and it's amazing.
Then all hell breaks loose. Phoebus escapes his bonds and rallies the citizens of Paris to fight Frollo and his soldiers. Quasimodo goes into a rage defending the cathedral, going so far as to send boiling lead down to the streets below, causing the crowd to run away screaming. Only Frollo manages to make it inside the cathedral, this time bent on vengeance. (There is also a very funny nod to "The Wizard of Oz" involving Laverne and her torturous pigeons)
Quasimodo triumphantly cheers as he checks on Esmeralda... Only, Esmeralda isn't moving. She isn't breathing... It looks as if Esmeralda might have actually died. Quasimodo weeps as he cradles her in his arms. Just as Frollo is attempting to stab Quasimodo with a long knife, Esmeralda wakes up... Wait, what? She was dead. Now she's awake... That's right, it's another case of the frustratingly recurring Disney trope: "The Hero Is DeadNoWait They're Alive." Frollo turns into a cliched villain, spouting lines such as "Leaving so soon?" and attacking Quasimodo and the now fully-conscious Esmeralda with a large sword.
As they battle on the bell tower balcony, Frollo stumbles and clutches on to one of the gargoyles. As the stone crumbles beneath him though, the gargoyle comes to life, "smiting the wicked and plunging him into a fiery pit."
With the danger now passed, Quasimodo gives his blessing to Esmeralda and Phoebus's union, the citizens of Paris applaud the people who brought justice to the city, and Quasimodo can finally step outside into the crowd and be accepted, first by a little girl and then by the whole city. His days of being shut away are now over.
IRVYNE: I suppose it goes without saying, but Disney took some pretty huge liberties with the story. The characters may be mostly the same as in Victor Hugo's novel, but some of their personalities and plots are hardly even recognisable. Phoebus is not a nice guy in the book. Quasimodo is deaf and has trouble communicating. Frollo is not a judge, but the archdeacon of the cathedral. To be honest, I can understand this change. This movie was always going to be controversial with its high level of religious involvement and symbolism. To have the Catholic archdeacon lusting after the gypsy girl might have been a bit too scandalous. It is a Disney movie, after all!
The creators of the famous 1939 Hollywood adaptation gave Frollo's story arc to the justice minister, and Disney have followed suit here. I actually think this works fine for the plot, and it gives Frollo a reason to have a relationship with Phoebus. Frollo is absolutely wonderful, and one of the most stirring and memorable parts of the film. Deliciously voiced by Tony Jay, Frollo is fascinating because he carries out such horrible acts of violence and hatred, all the while convinced that he is pure and doing God's holy work.
This character's complexity is reflected in the overall plot. While The Lion King's story is really quite simple and straightforward, and Pocahontas's story is fairly bland and cliche, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is surprisingly complex and dense for an animated feature. Numerous different plot threads weave their way through the story, and there is an enormous amount of subtext; what's NOT being said, what the characters are feeling, their inner demons. I think that's one of the main appeals of this film. It is in no way a children's story, it doesn't try to be simple and cute. It is a very grown up tale of oppression and justice. I find you can have really great discussions about the deep themes in Hunchback that you just couldn't have from something like Pocahontas.
But it is dark. It's as dark as Disney gets in animated form. Sure, it has a few wacky bits and pieces to give you the occasional laugh. But I love the fact that Disney didn't shy away from some of the fairly disturbing themes of the novel. It sure caused Disney's marketing team a few headaches though! I can't help but get the feeling they had no idea what to do with Hunchback. Disney was supposed to appeal to kids and families, as happy, fun experiences. How could they have effectively marketed this...? Aimed it at an older audience? Check out this early poster and cringe with me.
Oh, look at how happy, colourful and jolly everything is! Even Frollo's got a cheeky little grin, as if he's saying, "Ooh, you're a naughty bunch of children." At the top it says it's "family entertainment - a dazzling treat." I can only imagine how many parents took their very young children to see the jolly fun new Disney film, and carried them crying out of the cinemas when they witnessed the opening song.
In Australia, interestingly, the movie was rated G on its initial release. Although I didn't realise it at the time, in order to get that rating (which Disney would definitely have wanted - no Disney movie had been PG up to that point) two scenes were actually REMOVED from the film! When I visited America the following year and rented the video, I was shocked to see scenes that simply were not in the Australian release!
The two offending scenes were Frollo sniffing Esmeralda's hair in Notre Dame (the cut went from "Gypsies don't do well inside stone walls" straight to "You have chosen a magnificent prison") as well as the second half of the "Hellfire" song. The scene ended with Frollo saying, "I'll find her if I have to burn down all of Paris."
This censored cut is no longer in circulation. All D.V.D. and Blu-Ray releases here have now been rated PG and have the entire movie.
I love The Hunchback of Notre Dame for its embrace of Victor Hugo's dark and disturbing themes. It is definitely not an appropriate film for young children to watch, however, and I don't think it was marketed correctly on its initial release.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame may just be my all-time favourite looking Disney film. Character detail is at an all-time high, the background artwork is stunning and the character animation is second-to-none.
I love the way Notre Dame is presented. The building feels like a character in the story. We see her moods, her seasons, and all of her beauty and all of her danger, both inside and out.
The computer simulation program built for the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King was adapted and advanced even further here for the crowd scenes. Never had an animated city felt so heavily populated. Sure, the individual character models are fairly crude by today's standards, but they are cleverly only ever seen in the background, so unless you are specifically looking for details, they are never really noticed as individual people, just a moving, living crowd.
I also love how the scenes all bleed into each other. After Quasimodo sings "Out There," the camera could have "cut" and we could have gone straight to Phoebus entering the city. But instead, the camera pulls back then pans down. There are a number of transitions like this, and they work wonderfully, as if to say, "At the same time somewhere else in the city, this was happening."
After the very flat-looking characters in Pocahontas, Hunchback is a major return-to-form. It is visually stunning on every level, rich in colour and detail, and full of computer-enhanced effects that blend seamlessly with the hand-drawn characters and painted backgrounds. It is a masterclass on how beautiful an animated film can be.
Stephen Schwartz has said on a number of occasions that he considers The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be Alan Menken's finest score, and I may possibly agree with him. It is by far and away the most sophisticated collection of songs and background music that had been heard in a Disney film up to this point. The songs are specifically not as "catchy" as previous movies, but they are dripping with atmosphere, mood and emotion.
"The Bells of Notre Dame," the recurring theme throughout the movie, is a 6-minute prologue to the story that tells of Quasimodo's tragic origins. It is dark, menacing and has a gloriously uplifting ending.
"Out There" is Quasimodo's "I Want" song. It is a beautifully classic Menken ballad.
"Topsy Turvy" is the mad, manic festival song, sung by Clopin and the crowd.
"God Help The Outcasts" is Esmeralda's prayer in the cathedral. It is heartbreakingly sad as well as being a biting commentary on the regular church-goers, who are only praying for wealth, fame and glory. Esmeralda, literally walking in the opposite direction as them, prays for justice and peace for the outcasts of the world.
In the middle of the film is a double-song, conveying two different characters' attraction to Esmeralda. Quasimodo's song - "Heaven's Light" - shows the joyous feeling of new love. He has a crush, and she fills his every thought. Meanwhile, in "Hellfire" Frollo battles his inner demons, loathing himself for the feelings of lust inside of him. Stephen Schwartz's lyrics in this song have been highly controversial over the years, and it's still stunning that Disney okayed their inclusion.
"It's not my fault, if in God's plan
He made the Devil so much stronger than a man!
Protect me, Maria! Don't let this siren cast her spell,
Don't let her fire sear my flesh and bone...
Destroy Esmeralda, and let her taste the fires of Hell,
Or else let her be mine, and mine alone..."
"A Guy Like You" is the brief comic relief song that has the gargoyles being wacky and convincing Quasimodo that Esmeralda is in love with him. It is fairly ill-fitting with the rest of the movie, but it does lighten up the story in a very dark moment.
Lastly "The Court of Miracles" is a menacing song that Clopin sings to Quasimodo and Phoebus as they are captured. Interestingly, this song was REMOVED for the 1999 stage adaptation. It was not particularly missed.
The songs are wonderful, no doubt about it. But the score is what really sets this film above all others. Utilising a massive pipe organ, a massive Latin-chanting choir and a strong "bells" theme, this score is powerful, intense, complex and beautiful. The track below, is possibly my favourite piece of Menken music ever composed.
IRVYNE: What do you think of the gargoyles?
Nope. Nope. This never happened. It doesn't exist. Poor Victor Hugo would be rolling in his grave!